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Public health expert gives advice to arts organizations about reopening safely

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How can church choirs rehearse during the coronavirus pandemic? If dancers perform in masks, will they be able to get enough oxygen? Can museums still hold docent-led tours, and if so, how should they change in the era of COVID-19?

Those were just a few of the topics discussed Friday morning during a virtual meeting about “Reopening CT Arts Venues: Science-Based Safety” organized by The Reopening CT Arts Venues task force.

Sten Vermund, who is task force co-chair and also dean of the Yale School of Public Health, answered questions from people associated with arts venues and organizations around the state. The purpose of the session was to provide advice on how to reopen “through the lens of public health,” with the idea that doing so will lead to improved consumer confidence and to an organization’s long-term viability.

Asked about theaters and social distancing, Vermund suggested drawing inspiration from grocery stores. Many grocers, for instance, have put little marks on the floor to map out 6-foot distances. The stores are often limiting the number of customers, and theaters could perhaps limit the number of patrons in the lobby at any given time, he said, perhaps letting them into the theater in waves. Bathrooms could be proctored, letting in a certain number of people at a time and having a longer intermission.

Someone asked if a dancer wearing a mask would be able get the oxygen he or she needs. Vermund said, “I can say with great confidence the masks are permitting full exchange of oxygen. Oxygen is a lot smaller than a virus and has no trouble permeating ... a mask.”

Someone else asked about church choir rehearsals, and Vermund said if the ensemble isn’t the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and consists of, say, 30 people, physical distancing would be possible. He said while it is awkward to sing with a mask, it’s feasible.

As for docent-led museum tours, Vermund said physical distancing is possible, if admittedly a little tricky. A few people could be near the painting or sculpture the docent is describing, and the people who are farther away could move closer to the artwork after the docent had finished talking about it. Maybe patrons can rotate where they stand over the course of the tour, he said, and the docent might wait longer between paintings to let everyone get a close look at the previous work and then catch up. “And the universal mask use goes without saying,” he said.

The question arose about a studio used by a number of artists, and Vermund suggested possibly following the lead of laboratories at Yale where, for example, they are having people work in different shifts and are spreading the work week over seven days instead of five, to minimize crowding.

Air and ventilation came up, as well, and is expected to be explored more in a second meeting to be held June 9. On Friday, though, Krystal Pollitt, an expert on indoor quality at Yale, said that having an effective filtration system is critical for venues.

Ultimately, Vermund said, “PPE (personal protective equipment) works. Distancing works with masks, with hand washing. We can keep ourselves, our employees, our patrons safe with a reasonable set of thoughtful public health measures.”


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